As I expected, my story about the trailer for Religulous, the new Bill
Maher/Larry Charles documentary about religion, caused something of an
uproar. Normally I don’t mind this – hell, we all know I like it – but
I think it’s possible that I didn’t make my case as well as I could
have made it. I just spent some time on the phone with my father, a lay
minister in the Catholic Church and a guy who has been a spiritual
seeker for my whole life, and who is more open minded than ‘lay
minister in the Catholic Church’ would indicate. Over the course of our
conversation we touched on Rumi, Buddhism, the origins of kosher laws,
Teresa of Avila, quantum physics, Genesis and more, and a lot of my
thinking became crystallized. While I found myself agreeing with my
father on basic aspects of the nature of the universe and reality, I
put down the phone feeling more atheist than I was before.
A note: this is only tangentially movie related, and with the new blog
system I would usually write this as a blog. But since my initial
article was read by so many, I wanted my follow-up to be possibly read
by the same people, who may not visit the blog pages. They should visit
the blog pages, though.
I made two claims in that piece: that believing in God is irrational,
ludicrous and insane and that religion is one of, if not the major
thing holding humanity back from further progress. Let’s start with the
Belief in God is just plain silly. The idea that there’s a being or a
consciousness that created the universe is patently absurd – what the
hell created God? – and the idea that even if such a being or
consciousness existed that it would be worried if you went to church on
Sunday or if Larry and Jim down the street got married is even sillier.
A personal god like that, one who is involved in the day to day and minute to minute workings of your life, is nothing more than a crutch, a way for ignorant people
to get through the scariness of life, to muddle through the incredible
feelings of isolation that we have as human beings. I make no apologies
for this viewpoint, and I see anyone who imagines God as some kind of
cosmic DJ, taking our requests – ‘Help Aunt Gladys get a job! Get rid
of this cancer!’ – as not being the kind of person with whom I can
actually have a conversation. And those are the mild believers – I
haven’t even touched the subintellectual groups like Creationists.
The idea of a personal God, a being or a force that pays attention or
cares about you, isn’t just silly – it’s boring. The universe is an
amazing place, on every single level, and it’s even more amazing when
the whole thing isn’t simply explained away as ‘Oh yeah, God did that.’
I think some believers assume that atheists can’t have awe or wonder,
but I’m filled with it. I love discovering the wonders of the universe,
from the bizarre aspects of quantum physics to the majesties of
astronomy and cosmology. I don’t look at a beautiful sunset and think
how great it is that God made it – how dull. I look at the sun and
marvel at how that solar furnace created the very elements that are me.
That’s mindblowing and awe-inspiring, and it can all be explained with
I do believe there’s something more out there, but to call it God is
like calling electricity God. It’s a fundamental part of the way this
universe works, and there’s nothing supernatural about it. There’s no
personality to it any more than there’s a personality to gravity.
Praying to it is like praying to fire. People much smarter than me will
one day be able to describe it in equations, the poetry of science. My
brain doesn’t work that way – none of that shit makes sense to me – but
I love the idea that while there’s much out there we don’t understand
and don’t know, it’s all understandable and knowable. Just because
there’s something we don’t grasp now doesn’t mean the answer is ‘God
did it.’ The real answer will likely be all the more amazing, more
subtle, more life-affirming.
And that thing, that equation that will unlock it all, isn’t from outside. It didn’t create the universe, it’s of the universe. It is the universe. It’s not beyond us or above us or removed from us. It is us. It’s the very glorious nature of matter and life and reality, and it doesn’t need some mumbo jumbo to work – but it may take a lot of schooling to actually understand. But whatever the nature of the universe is, it’s not God, especially not in the way that word is understood. If you want to use the word God to describe the complex yet elegant laws that govern physics in the universe you can, but I’d rather you didn’t use a word so loaded.
This is a lot of the stuff I talked about with my father. He gets
really excited about this stuff, about the Christian mystics and about
how solid matter is actually mostly made up of space and all that. He
keeps telling me that religion is the fable and metaphor by which we
understand these truths, truths that in the next few decades or
centuries will be understood by physics and math, much as nobody thinks
the sun is getting pulled across the sky by a chariot. He kept pointing
out things that Jesus said or that God said to Moses that fit in with
Eastern philosophies, and kept trying to tell me that this stuff was
the messageI don’t fully disagree with him on that, and I do think that
the ancient Hebrews, for example, had a better grasp on Genesis as
story as opposed to history book (making these Bronze Age desert
dwellers more sophisticated than half the United States), but whatever
the purpose of religion was, it’s not serving that any more. And I
would say it hasn’t for millenia.
Which brings me to my second point. There’s no way for me to disagree
with the huge majority of what Jesus is recorded as saying in the New
Testament (although anyone who believes the Gospels are first person
accounts of anything at all need to do some learnin’) – philosophically
Jesus had a message that was righteous and true without resorting to
magic and fairy tales. Sadly the compilers of the New Testament needed
to sex Jesus’ down home wisdom with miracles and reanimations, and then
people had to begin taking all of that shit even more seriously than
the actual words the guy said. All of a sudden his supposed – and
blatantly bullshit – deeds were more important than his message.
Such is the nature of all religion. Religions are control systems, and
they are obsessed with ritual and dogma. Sometimes exceptionally dumb
people compare science to religion – they would be right if you had to
bow in front of the periodic table when you entered a lab or if science
didn’t accept (fuck accept – it seeks out) new and contradictory ideas
based on evidence. Religions take the poetry and mythology my father
loves in mysticism and turns it into souvenirs at holy shrines and
videos where Kirk Cameron peels bananas. Religion takes the metaphor for
the universe and beats it to death and mounts and stuffs the body
before an altar. Where science seeks answers, religion forces its
‘truth’ upon you.
Because religions are control systems, the most potent ever designed,
there’s no room for free thought. Real, serious questions about the
nature of God – a nature that always comes across as ridiculous. Just
think about the Trinity – are discouraged or, if entertained, answered
in cheap platitudes. Religious people are asked to believe shit that is
completely insane, and they’re made to feel bad about it when they
begin to see the insanity. Just keep your magic underwear on, child of
God. Get rid of those body Thetans and you’ll stop being so troubled
with doubt. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about people from writing
about movies, it’s that they fucking hate to think, and religion is so
comforting for them. All the answers, none of the troubles, and most of
them will tell you that it’s okay to be ignorant, poor, and unmotivated
– God’s gonna make it all better in the next world.
People want to belong, and I understand that. Community is important to
us, but religion offers mindless community, servile obedience to myths
and phantoms. Your local Kiwanis Club has probably never tried to
convert the Elks through conquest (and the Kiwanis guys even include
the Golden Rule – one of Christ’s best and most common sense teachings
– into their six guiding “Objects”!) – can your faith say the same?
Most of all religion embodies irrationality. It is about doing rituals
that make no sense, holding dear beliefs that are patently ludicrous,
following traditions whose only meanings are ceremonial. Kosher laws
made a lot of sense two thousand years ago before hygiene was that big
of a deal; they’re essentially Thou Shalt Wash Thy Hands After Pissing.
Today they’re just silly, and they’re empty, hollow ritual. Do you
really think God cares if you have cheese on that burger? Even if I
were to cede to you a personal God, one who intercedes and pays
attention to our plight, how much of a dipshit would he be if cared
about that stuff? You can really see where the Gnostics were coming
from – they believed the God of the Bible was the Demiurge, a corrupted
being who created the world for the higher, more alien and unknowable
real God, but who passed himself off as the actual Big Guy. The
Gnostics were, of course, killed.
That irrationality would be funny if we weren’t living in a world so
dangerously destabilized by it. Religious conflicts surround us
globally, even if many of them are also more traditional resource or
territorial battles. Without Islam and Christianity it’s possible that
our presence in the Middle East looking for oil would cause people to
take up arms against us, but without religion it seems unlikely that
the level of suicidal fanaticism would equal what we have today.
Without the irrationality of religion we wouldn’t have had the creation
of Israel after World War II, and we wouldn’t have leaders in
Washington who support that state because their Biblical beliefs tell
them it’s needed for the fulfillment of End Times prophecies. Who knows
what stem cell research could have accomplished if religious fanatics
hadn’t been fighting against it. And who knows how much lower my blood
pressure would be if irrational religious dopes would give up
Intelligent Design and just learn what a scientific theory is.
That irrationality retards progress. The truth is that religion and science are incompatible, no matter what Einstein quote people trot out. It’s becoming more and more obvious that the medieval world views of religion are outmoded. Ever wonder why there aren’t so many miracles anymore? I guess you could say that God is making a decision to not raise so many people from the dead or levitate fewer mystics, but the truth is that we live in a time when these supernatural claims can be examined and debunked. I’m sure if we went back in time to a wedding attended by Mr. Christ and his mother, as well as twelve or so of his dearest friends, we’d find out that maybe that whole loaves and fish thing wasn’t quite as stupendous as it sounds. But who needs miracles from God when we have totally batshit stuff happening in quantum physics, courtesy of science?
If my father is right and religion is the poetry and myth used to help
people understand their world, it’s failed. It’s been three or four
thousand years and I think we can safely say it’s been sort of a
disaster. Maybe back in the day people got it (I’ve always read that
the Greeks didn’t take their myths as seriously as Christians take
theirs), but now they don’t. They’ve lost the metaphor through
literalization, and they’ve misplaced the meaning. It’s time to put
this religion bullshit aside and realize that there are tools that we
can use – the sciences, for example – to understand our world. And that
understanding isn’t any less wonderful, it’s just much more sane. It’s time to put aside the idea that you and I are different people because your God has a different mailing address than mine, and realize that we’re all made out of that same shit spat out of a star billions of years ago.
Someone on the message boards criticized me for being intolerant, for
wanting all people to be like me. I don’t understand that critique. I
want all people to be literate, like me. Is that a bad thing? I want
all people to have access to sanitary water, like me. That seems like I
have their best intentions in mind. I want all people to be free to use
reason and reality to interact with their world and not be the victims
of organized mythology and sanctified fairy tales. I guess it’s okay if
I don’t want them to have to shit in their water as long as they get to
have shit in their heads.